For the Culture
Tiffany Whitlow is changing the landscape of medical research
Words by Javacia Harris Bowser
Reality TV fans might recognize Tiffany Whitlow from the Oprah Winfrey Network show Love & Marriage: Huntsville. She and her husband Louis are one of the Rocket City couples the show follows. But Whitlow has been busy building buzz beyond the entertainment industry. She’s the co-founder of Acclinate, a company on a mission to make medical research more inclusive.
In 2021, Acclinate was selected to be a part of Google’s FundBlackFounders. Acclinate, which is based in Birmingham, uses technology and community outreach to connect marginalized individuals with medical professionals and organizations. One of Acclinate’s top priorities is to get more people of color involved in clinical trials.
“Our company is a true mix of culture and technology,” Whitlow says. “You can’t serve industry without truly serving people first. I often say we build and scale our company at the speed of trust and that trust is the way that we build community.”
And she’s building that community through storytelling. Through its #NOWINCLUDED platform, Acclinate seeks to spark conversations, inviting people to share their healthcare stories with one another. But the online platform, which Whitlow dreamed up on Post-it notes, also aims to help people make informed medical decisions. On the #NOWINCLUDED website, for example, you can find a webinar on how the COVID-19 vaccine was made, articles on gut health and colorectal cancer, and much more.
Whitlow leads by example and is always open to share her story. Adopted before the age of 2, Whitlow grew up knowing nothing of her family medical history. Once she became a mother, she was determined to make sound healthcare decisions for her family. When she learned of a study that found that Albuterol—the most commonly prescribed drug for asthma—wasn’t effective in 47 percent of African American kids, she knew she’d need to look for alternative ways to treat her son’s asthma.
This, she says, is just one example of why it’s so important for people of color to get involved in clinical trials.
“We need to ensure that our drugs are effective,” she says. Whitlow understands that many people of color mistrust medical institutions.
“A lot of times people still reference what happened with the Tuskegee syphilis trial,” she says. Starting in 1932, 600 Black men from Macon County, Alabama, were enlisted to partake in a scientific experiment on syphilis. The goal was to observe untreated syphilis in Black populations, but participants were unaware of this. They were told they were being treated for “bad blood,” when in reality they received no treatment at all—even after penicillin was discovered as a safe and reliable cure for syphilis.
“We need to trust and understand that we’ve come a really long way from Tuskegee,” Whitlow says. “We have institutional review boards in place, and we have ways that we are protected equally to a white counterpart.”
That said, Whitlow does believe it’s up to the medical industry to make the healthcare system more inclusive.
“I’m brave enough to go into industry and say, ‘Diversity is not your problem, inclusion is,’” she says. “You’re trying to fit people into a space that wasn’t built for them.”
They have to listen
The success of Acclinate hinges on relationships—including Whitlow’s relationship with Acclinate co-founder Del Smith.
“Tiffany and I are different in so many ways, but one of the reasons why Acclinate will continue to excel as a company is because the co-founders have a strong bond,” Smith says. “Tiffany is strong, intelligent, determined, strategic, and caring.”
Furthermore, Whitlow is able to build a rapport with the people she seeks to reach because she can relate to their stories.
“I’ve lived the experience of the people I’m serving,” she says. “I was given up day one. I’ve been broke before. I was a mom at 19 years old. I’ve had to choose between paying for gas and paying for my kid’s prescription.”
These tough times taught her how to navigate the challenges of building a startup such as Acclinate.
“I never dreamed I would be able to use all of my lived experience and all the things that could be looked at negatively to actually help propel an industry forward,” she says. “I know that lived experience helps me to provide industry with something they could never pay for.”
Her story is her superpower, her secret sauce. Her story is what grabs the attention of Google and of investors.
“It makes me bold and helps position me in the room,” she says. “I feel like there are so many different stories within my story that it’s hard to argue with. They have to listen.”
When I cry, those are real tears
Despite her confidence, Whitlow admits that enduring the criticism that comes with being on reality TV is challenging.
“My husband has a tough skin, but I do not,” she says. “When I cry, those are real tears.”
Early on, some fans of the show decided to sound off on social media, accusing Whitlow of being insensitive and too critical of the other couples on the show, adding that she and her husband had no place to offer advice since they were still newlyweds.
“I felt like it wasn’t one person who was saying something bad but 100,000. And there’s the pressure of having to prove to those 100,000 people that you’re not a shitty person,” Whitlow says. “I worked hard to be a good, decent human.”
For her, this means not only being kind but also being humble and content.
“I’ve worked really hard and pray on it every day that I want to not want more than what God has for me,” she says.
Another challenge of being on a reality TV show is not having control over what makes it to the screen.
“You don’t get to be a part of the editing,” Whitlow explains. “You could have a two-hour scene that’s two minutes [on the show] and you don’t get to pick those two minutes.”
Pause, Breathe, Go
Nevertheless, Whitlow considers the opportunity to be a part of Love & Marriage: Huntsville a blessing and says she even believes the show is good for her marriage. Because she’s busy building her business, quality time with her husband might be pushed to the back burner if it weren’t for the show.
“This forces us to come together and have conversations that maybe we aren’t already scheduled to have on a daily basis,” she says. “It also has afforded us the opportunity to notice things in each other that might need to be worked on.” For example, they have both learned they need to be better listeners.
The show also provides her with a unique platform to promote Acclinate and #NOWINCLUDED.
“Being a part of the show continues to position our brand and our #NOWINCLUDED mission in front of an audience that might not otherwise hear about us,” she says. “I think it also helps to humanize our brand.”
Next up, Whitlow is launching a brand called Pause, Breathe, Go that’s meant to help adults and teens better cope with stress.
“People say to trust the process, but they don’t give you the process,” she says. Pause, Breathe, Go is the process.
Whitlow credits her husband Louis for reminding her to “pause” and “breathe” when needed, while she’s the one who pushes him to “go.”
“I really feel like we are equally yoked,” she says. “He is my calm. I’m his ignition.”
And as she continues to share her story on television and beyond, Whitlow hopes she’ll be a spark for others to go after their goals too.
“I’m an example of an average everyday person that doesn’t get lucky but that works really hard to be in a position,” she says, “and you can do all of it in the South.”